Friday, July 07, 2006


Ten-pages-in book review: Hitching Rides with Buddha

I know, I know, I just did a 10-pages-in book review last week. And, I just reviewed another book by this same author a couple of months ago.

But I'm so happy to have back-to-back excellent books to read, and I know it's summer reading season and I for one am desperate for recommendations for something to read myself, and I have such a literary crush on Will Ferguson now that I just can't help myself.

I'm about half way through Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan, the very funny and insightful travel memoir of one witty Canadian who takes a break from teaching English in Japan to follow the sakura, the much-celebrated wave of cherry blossoms that flows up and over Japan each spring.

Here's how Will (I'll take the liberty of using his first name, because I truly hope we can be drinking buddies some day) describes the seminal moment when he decides to undertake his journey:

One year, drunker than usual, I announced to my circle of Japanese teachers that I was going to follow the Cherry Blossom Front all the way to Hokkaido, at the northern end of Japan. Or rather, that is what was reported to me. I don't recall making this vow exactly, but I was repeatedly reminded of it. My supervisor, for one, constantly fretted over my plans. (...)

Anyhow, I had committed myself to discovering the True Heart of Japan. "William is going to follow the sakura all the way to Hokkaido," my supervisor would tell people at random, and I would grimace in a manner that might easily been taken for a smile. I stalled three years.

When I finally did set out to follow the Cherry Blossom Front north, I went armed only with the essentials of Japanese travel: a map, several thick wads of cash, and a decidedly limited arsenal of Japanese, most of which seemed to revolved around drinking or the weather. ("It is very hot today. Let's have a beer.")

He sets off, a Gaijin-san ("Mr Foreigner") curiousity hitchhiking the entire length of Japan (across seven islands, roughly the distance from Miami to Montreal) for no real reason except because he can, and because so many of his Japanese colleagues tell him either it can't be done or he is crazy to try.

If one day I were to become a famous and celebrated writer, I should be very flattered to have someone observe, "Her writing is very similar in style and substance to that of Will Ferguson." I love his keen eye for the quirkiness of those around him, I love his barely subdued wit and his gentle self-deprecation, and I simply I love how he strings words together.

It was these qualities that made me pick up this book in the first place because to be totally honest - I wasn't all that interested in Japan, or travels in Japan, or Japanese culture. Not there is anything wrong with Japan, or the Japanese; it's just not a culture that has ever captured my curiousity before. I have friends who have and would love to travel to Japan, but it never even cracked my own top ten of places I'd some day like to visit. Until now, that is; until I read this book.

Hitching Rides with Buddha has piqued my curiousity about Japan in more or less the same way that Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw inflamed my love of my own country. Did I tell you one of the inspirations for our Quebec City trip was Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw? Will Ferguson didn't write specifically about Quebec City, but he reminded me that there are many, many exquisite places to visit within a day's drive of here, and that could do worse than spend a few days exploring Canada and understanding our own history a little better.

This memoir, Hitching Rides with Buddha, is the antithesis to the standard Frommers or Lonely Planet tourist guide, and far from the usual dry and trite assessment of the Japanese people and culture. There is a constant tension between Will's status as an outsider and the intimacy of his perspective on the lives of the ordinary Japanese citizens he encounters while hitchhiking that makes his story compelling as well as descriptive. Will's insight into both people and place, and his alternating affection for and exasperation with the Japanese makes both the author and his subjects charmingly endearing.

By the way, if you're looking for this book in the US or UK, it was published under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues. An author's note in the newly released Canadian edition tells the reader that Hitching Rides with Buddha was the author's original choice for a title, but that "the title was nixed by the American publisher on the complaint that it sounded too religious. Sigh."

I've been both extremely lucky and kind of annoyed to find two great books to read back-to-back through the early summer reading season. 'Annoyed' because The Historian was so page-turningly compelling that I could barely stop reading long enough to make dinner or put the kids to bed, and other niceties like personal grooming and work had to take a number to get my attention. Hitching Rides with Buddha will bring me through to next week, but I've still got two weeks of holiday time at the end of July and the beginning of August to pass.

What have you read recently that's worth recommending?

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